One of the joys of the gift planning profession is interacting with seniors. Although adults of any age can make a planned gift, the age demographic of the sector tends to be skewed towards those more senior. Connecting with seniors, however, can afford unique situations for which some suggested approaches might be helpful.
Visiting our donors is an important step to building relationships that may draw donors closer to your organization. If you are a new staff person, a brief article of introduction, with photo, in one of your routine communications is a helpful first step in making yourself known. Some gift planners have found that first writing or emailing to suggest a visit with a follow-up phone call to arrange the meeting works well. Others use only the telephone. One approach is to have your first visit by telephone. Once you have made this initial contact, you will no longer be a stranger when you connect again to arrange a personal visit.
When you have arranged the visit, write or email to confirm the time and place with perhaps a follow-up phone call to re-confirm on the day of the visit. Suggest meeting in their home (a known and “safe” ground) but be open to the suggestion of meeting elsewhere. Arrive on time—not early, not late but on time—and be prepared for the unexpected.
One blistering hot and humid August day, I visited an older couple whom we shall call Mr. and Mrs. Jones. When Mrs. Jones answered the door, she greeted me graciously. She then shared that Mr. Jones wasn’t feeling well that day because of the heat but that he was looking forward to seeing me. And see him I did! Mr. Jones, a rather ample man, came out to greet me in his undershorts and nothing else. He remained that way for the entire visit. Neither he nor his wife batted an eye, and so the three of us carried on a conversation as if nothing were amiss.
Learn to listen
Listening to donors is a skill set that all gift planners must cultivate. Through listening, one can establish common interests. Sports, gardening, family and, of course, the mission of your organization can all be great topics of conversation and build connections. The commonality of your cause and your mutual passion for it can be the greatest source of bonding between you and your donor.
Be alert to behavior that is not the norm. One year, I visited with a donor in her home and met her for the first time. I found to her to be bright, alert, interested but perhaps a bit fey. A year later, I arranged a second stewardship visit, and the change in the donor was dramatic. Although still bright and friendly, her mental faculties had diminished greatly. She welcomed me warmly but she just was not “there,” which made the situation uncomfortable. I was in the process of concluding the visit when the donor’s daughter arrived unexpectedly. Quite rightly, the daughter viewed my presence with suspicion. Fortunately, I was able to locate and telephone the daughter the next day to explain my presence more thoroughly, apologize for my unintentionally inappropriate visit, and assure her that we would mark her mother’s file as “do not visit.”
Be open. Be patient. Be interested. Be interesting. And above all, be yourself. Your goal is to draw your donor closer to your organization both emotionally and financially. Understanding a few of the rudiments of connecting with a more senior demographic can greatly facilitate you doing just that.
Doug Flanders M.A., B.Ed. has worked closely with donors and volunteers for over 25 years, currently serving as the Director of Major and Planned Gifts for The United Church of Canada. Doug is a member of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP), a past member of the Board of the Greater Toronto Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). He is also a past chairperson of the national Board of Directors of The United Church of Canada Foundation.